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The Origins of College Mascots and Nicknames

 the cover of Chris Pio's new book
Barry McNamara., Monmouth College
the cover of Chris Pio's new book

Chris Pio says his fascination started while he was coaching track and cross country at Monmouth College, and working as the sports information director in the 1980's and 90's. But the actual serious research and writing didn't happen until 2017 when he was recovering from an injury.

"It was just one of those subjects that I was passionate about as a lifelong sports fan, as a coach with 20-plus years at the college level and sports information work. I've always been fascinated by sports history, trivia, facts, and figures. It was just something that I was interested in. I didn't know if there was anybody out there that cared about it as much as I did, but it just something personally fascinating. I thought it was something the Division-3 audience would be receptive to whether they were student athletes, coaches, administrators, alumni - I just thought it was a story worth telling."

His book includes 450 stories - 439 currently active D3 schools and 11 more than have either closed or consolidated since he began writing. He looked at college websites, internet sources, and previous publications.

"You would think if it was an animal, an eagle or a hawk or a lion or a tiger, it would be just because of the animal and the characteristics. But oftentimes there were really uncommon back stories."

One of his favorites is the "jumbos."

"The best animal example that comes to mind is an elephant. The Jumbos of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. They are the Jumbos because one of the original trustees of the university was P.T. Barnum, and P.T. Barnum had the prize elephant Jumbo. So Jumbo became not only the mascot and nickname of Tufts University, it became a word in the English language that never existed before."

He chose the three names in the title of his book because they're unique among small colleges in the US, and for the alliteration, "Gryphons, Gorloks, and Gusties."

"Gryphon is a mythological character, a creature with the head and wings of an eagle, and the feet and the body of a lion. So the Gryphon embodies the king of the sky and the king of the land. So it had some legendary properties, it's always seen as the guardian of treasure."

"Gorlock was a fictional creature that was made up by the student body of Webster University in St. Louis. Webster is located in Webster Groves which is a suburb of St. Louis and two streets that intersect near the heart of the campus are Gore Avenue and Lockwood Avenue - Gorlock - it's a compound word that they just made up because of the street intersection. They created this fictional creature, that just like the Gryphon is a combination of animals - it's part Cheetah, part Buffalo, and part St. Bernard."

And Gusties comes from the name of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

Many names come from the founders of each college - vikings, Fighting Scots, and the Norse.

"There are 17 schools that have some versions of hawks as their nickname, warhawks, river hawks, duhawks, and kohawks. But the reason why they are called that is not the same from one school to the next. So it's been really fascinating to find out the subtle differences because a lot of it ties back into the school's history or some event."

Bowdoin College in Maine is the Polar Bears because one of its graduates discovered the North Pole.

"I've just touched on the tip of it with Division 3 schools because that's where I've spent the bulk of my professional life over the last 40 years - in Division 3. It's as much a sports book as it is a history book and I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it."

Next, Pio plans to write a similar book about D2 colleges and their nicknames, and then D1.

Copyright 2021 WVIK, Quad Cities NPR

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.